Van Allsburg Shares the Gift of Wonder

Perhaps you've heard of Chris Van Allsburg in connection to the recent movie ''Jumanji,'' which was based on his 1981 Caldecott-winning children's book of the same name. The story is about two children who get trapped in a board game and have to find a way to escape.

The award-winning writer/illustrator might feel that he's been caught on a fanciful whirligig of publicity because of the Columbia/Tristar film starring Robin Williams. But even so, Mr. Van Allsburg says he is not interview-jaded: ''I'm not, really,'' he responds. ''Because even the same question isn't the same, depending on my state of mind. Sometimes I answer questions because they engage me intellectually. And then, sometimes I wonder, even if I articulate it clearly, would it be that interesting to a fair number of people?''

Van Allsburg graciously leads me into his studio, a fascinating aerie, his inner sanctum within his Providence home. Modest in size, the room is dominated by a drafting table. On the table is a scattering of colored pencils splayed like so many pickup sticks. There's also a children's coloring book - a hint of his most recently published book, ''Bad Day at Riverbend.''

Van Allsburg, whose mild-mannered appearance might surprise readers who are familiar with his fanciful work, is expressive, clever, atop his game. He is at ease, now seated in his first-floor living room chair. His eight-month-old daughter, Anna, is sound asleep on the second floor. His wife, Lisa, a radio consultant, and four-year-old Sophia, co-conspirator of ''Bad Day at Riverbend,'' are due home soon.

Meanwhile, Van Allsburg contemplates his artistic beginnings and his childhood in Grand Rapids, Mich.

''When I was a kid, I sensed a shift that happened in second or third grade.... In kindergarten, first, and second grade, being a gifted artist was cool. You got peer recognition and you acquired social status. But around third or fourth grade, it didn't have the same value.... The things admired by your peers changed. For boys, it changed to athletics.

''Sitting over a desk and doodling characters is terrific when you're in first grade. But if you're still doing it in fourth grade, people start to think different thoughts about you.

''While I was in third grade, I just stopped making art. I didn't have much interest in it until I got back to it in college.''

Van Allsburg was an undergraduate at the University of Michigan when he revisited the fine arts. In time, this led to a move to the Rhode Island School of Design, where he earned an advanced degree in sculpture. Today, as he ponders, he's positioned not far from ''The Titanic,'' a wry, representative bronze piece of the cruise liner done while he was at RISD. Most of his sculptures, in fact, foreshadow the children's books in their subtle, ironic, highly realistic, and refined approach.

When I ask Van Allsburg about creativity, it isn't his personal philosophies that he chooses to discuss. Instead, he starts with the basics: ''When I make pictures that don't go to a text (and I don't do that a lot anymore), that process is fairly simple because it's a single image and the thing that probably happens to catch is easy for me to conceptualize, to get a handle on. I don't think a lot about it. I just sit down and do it.

''But the process that goes on before I write a story - when I'm involved in trying to work a story out - is much more deliberate and much more stop and start.

''When I write a story, it's often a matter of fixing a premise and going through a process of self-interrogation,'' says Van Allsburg, whose goal is to complete one picture book a year.

''It's funny. I use the word 'solve' because creativity is a puzzle to me. I have a premise and an idea I think is sound. Then, the problem is to figure out why it caught my attention, to resolve the question it poses.

''Failure doesn't bother me. It's part of the process.''

In sum, he says, ''An idea has potential, but you can't find a way to make it blossom. The pleasure of discovering it is fairly significant.''

In time, Van Allsburg went on to teach at RISD. It was at this point that he began to hone his conviction that one's materials determine the movement a piece of art will take. Because of this, he says, ''I had a tendency to emphasize the necessity for acquiring skills. Because it seems to me that acquiring skills would make it more likely that you'd be able to express your ideas, that the acquisition of skills would help eliminate barriers to self-expression. If you could draw extremely well in a very conventional way, then those skills would help you express unconventional ideas.'' He was, he says, ''a taskmaster on being able to handle your materials.''

Van Allsburg's 14th book ''Bad Day at Riverbend,'' came out in 1995. Like all of its predecessors, the story has a somewhat fantastic premise. A sleepy little black-and-white frontier town is plagued by colorful ''greasy streaks'' that threaten to taint everything in sight. When the culprit is finally caught, she turns out to be Van Allsburg's daughter Sophia, who is depicted on the final page, crayons in hand, hard at work coloring in some stylized black and white drawings. He dedicated the book to Sophia, ''My Little Buckaroo.''

Perhaps the appeal and great popularity of Van Allsburg's work can be symbolized by ''The Polar Express,'' his second Caldecott Medal winner, which celebrated its 10th anniversary in 1995. It is the charming saga of a young boy who doubts, then reaffirms, his belief in the realm of imagination. The theme of the story, beautifully illustrated in muted, dramatic color tones, is that wonder can prevail.

Or, as Van Allsburg stated in his 1986 Caldecott acceptance speech, ''The inclination to believe in the fantastic may strike some as a failure of logic, or gullibility.

''But it's really a gift.''

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